Word from our scientific director
With the number of Covid currently surpassing the values that we experienced in Spring, I sincerely hope that you are all still doing well, are healthy, and in good spirit.
There is no denying that these times are challenging, and I was happy that a number of compensation options for PhD candidates and post-docs have been put in place. It is not possible to compensate everyone, and everything, but every little bit that can be done helps. I was especially glad that now also PhD candidates without a WUR contract have an option for compensation. I will actually be part of the jury that will decide on the applications, and hope that we can help many, thus keeping the VLAG community strong.
Within VLAG we are not only trying to be instrumental to the whole VLAG community, but also try to attract talents, and do so through the VLAG graduate program, and this year also through a special round that was held together with TKI agri&food. Within both programs, we were able to give grants to talented MSc candidates who wrote their own PhD proposals. You can read more about this later in the FLASH; for now, congratulations Nicola, Marion, and Ferran! Both programs are really very close to my heart, and it is great that our MSc students are able to write innovative project proposals based on their own ideas, convince a jury, and get the opportunity to carry them out.
Another thing that I am very excited about is the VLAG open round. This time we decided to make it a special round for the newest tenure trackers, and we already have had an energizing match making event (on-line, because it was at the time that the more severe Covid rules were put in place). It was great to hear all the enthusiastic stories about all the work that is currently done within VLAG from Anouk and Vesna (from VLAG office) who were there all day. Besides that this new ‘generation’ of scientists operating within VLAG can now look specifically for a partner to write an exciting research proposal with, it also really helped in generating a lot of curiosity about the work done VLAG-wide. I am sure that this will be very instrumental in getting great research ideas to fruition, and the beauty of this is that this cross-pollination action is not limited to the open round!
What I also would like to share is that we have initiated a VLAG grant to further develop the four VLAG research themes and more specifically help with the preparation for and execution of the 2021 external peer review (EPR). For those of you that may not be familiar with the EPR, during this review, all research themes will receive feedback on their common vision and strategy to drive science, and how they exploit potential synergies and complementarity. Clearly, this is important for the research themes and as VLAG we want to facilitate our research themes with this. It was really nice to see that most research themes have suggested that young researchers would be put in the lead for this. I think that this is a unique option for our newest talents to get to know a whole research theme, and also build their networks based on this.
Whenever I am writing my pieces for FLASH the end of the page is in sight before I know it. So I will wrap up, and even before I have told you about my presence at the live PhD week (see also later in FLASH), and the newest addition to the VLAG team, but I will keep that for next time. You see we are busy trying to keep the VLAG community vital and hope that this also rubs off on you all individually.
Never shy away from contacting us with innovative ideas to make science even more interesting. But most of all, please stay safe, and healthy!
Prof Karin Schroën, Scientific Director VLAG
Above all, I hope that you are all doing well, and are in good spirits. That is a prerequisite for working well on all the things that the VLAG community excels in, and also to enjoy a nice holiday! I hope that either of the two options holds for you, and that you are not too affected by the Covid-conditions.
In one of my previous messages, I mentioned that we are very busy at putting new initiatives out: geared toward giving the VLAG community a boost, mostly in relation to research, and PhD candidates. However, these initiatives are not limited to that. We work with talented MSc students, who are truly challenged by having to write their own research proposal within the VLAG graduate program. The candidates do this while being coached on the content by their prospective supervisor, and on skills through the VLAG program (digital this year). The rewards can be great, since there is money to award two projects! In this way, VLAG supports blue skies research and puts some of our newest researchers in the lead, as we have now successfully done for a number of years.
It is also good for you to know that we revisited the way of financing various things within VLAG, while trying to keep the paperwork to a minimum! Please check out the research page, and more specifically the VLAG fellowships section. We now have fellowships for both PhD candidates and post-docs for short stays (secondments) at renowned institutes. In this way the projects can get a boost, making use of the knowledge and infrastructure that thus becomes available to our young researchers. The deadline for the current call is November 1st 2020 for activities starting in 2021. A second deadline for activities starting in 2021 is expected May 1st 2021.
Furthermore, there are options to bring renowned researchers to Wageningen, through our visiting guest researcher program for sabbaticals, master classes and symposia. For this there are not specific deadlines, and you can also continuously apply for extra funding for PhD trips which has been a recurring theme within VLAG from the first year of its’ existence. What you can no longer apply for, and I know that this is a disappointment for some of you is supporting the drinks for the various activities that you organize. We prefer to spend the money on supporting science directly, and creating unique opportunities by giving the grants mentioned earlier.
Because traveling is a challenge, we launched an initiative to support on-line activities. One of our chair groups (Microbiology) embraced this opportunity, and are the first to organize a workshop supported by VLAG on: “In vitro models to study the effect of dietary and pharmaceutical components on human health”. In this way, existing knowledge is made much more commonly available.
The next step that we will take is to redefine the VLAG open round. This time the program will revolve around recently (from January 2018 onward) appointed tenure trackers, in combination with the VLAG research themes, and in support of highly innovative ideas.
I guess that is all for now. You see that we have been pretty busy in trying to get all kinds of initiatives launched, and hope that you will actively make use of the options at hand. Never shy away from contacting us with innovative ideas to make science even more interesting.
Please stay safe, and healthy!
Prof Karin Schroën
In the times that we live in, traveling and giving presentations in just about every corner of the world is not what the VLAG community is doing. We as VLAG team thought that this should serve as an excellent opportunity to bring all these ground breaking ideas, cutting edge knowledge, and expertise of the VLAG community home. In a sense, it is very strange that we do not share our knowledge that much within WUR, and yes, I am also guilty as charged. As a matter of fact, I do (read: used to) run into researchers from Wageningen University in faraway places to find out that there is a common interest that should have made us work together for years. But somehow that simply did not happen often enough, and thus we missed out on an opportunity that should not have been missed in the first place.
As a first new step to bring the VLAG community closer together (yes, I said first, so you can expect more steps to follow), we will start with an on-line lecture series. The underlying idea is of course to share knowledge and get everyone more broadly interested in work done at WUR. Ideally this also acts as a nucleus for discussion, and maybe even collaborations. Since the PhD candidates have to cope with postponement or cancellation of courses, we came up with the idea to use the lecture series as a means to modestly supplement ECTS for the Training and Supervision Plan. Please keep in mind that actively participating in the lectures by reading a paper prior to the lecture, and sending in questions before the lecture, is a prerequisite for this. Vesna has already sent out a message with all the details on how things will be organized to all VLAG PhDs and postdocs.
I hope that you are all enthusiastic about the initiative, and I look forward to giving the first lecture that will revolve around the use of microfluidic tools. I apply them to investigate ‘processes’ in great detail, and based on that design sustainable food processes and products. Furthermore, I will share my vision about how these devices can serve as a means to bring technical and nutritional functionality of food together, and how both researchers interested in fundamental and applied sciences can contribute to this.
It is a challenge to bring this message that I have presented at ICEF (a very large food conference) home to a community with a very diverse background in disciplines. At the same time, I feel that it is my duty (a very nice one) to share what I know, and make that information accessible since it is my very strong opinion that researchers should always be curious about what others do, and take inspiration from that for their own work. I love crazy ideas, so if that is what I create in your minds, I have done what I have set out to do, and would also like to help you further explore what is possible.
For now, stay safe and stay healthy.
Prof Karin Schroën
This time I would like to share my observations on how I see that VLAG PhD candidates cope with the current Covid-19 situation, and also offer to listen to you if you need it either now, or later.
We all live in a different world compared to half a year ago. Covid-19 has changed how we view and do things, most probably for quite a while, and maybe even forever. We were pushed to re-think things, also how we work, and do science within the projects that we work on. Given the fact that these are very drastic changes that needed to be made, it would have been logical to see many people detached from their work. What I see is quite the opposite.
Yes, the way we work needed to be re-thought, but I am under the impression that this imposed reflection on the way of working has also generated many positive things. There are on-line coffee breaks, and other activities to keep social aspects running, and there are many, many skype, team, zoom etc. meetings to keep each other updated on how things are going. Also the entire teaching has been transformed to on-line in just about no time, also with the help of many of us. If you would ask me whether this is my ideal way of working, I would tell you for sure not, but does it work, yes, wholeheartedly yes. And that is only possible if everyone is constructive and willing to work in this ‘new normalcy’. I want to applaud you all for coping so well with the situation at hand. When looking at my own research group, I would not be surprised that in terms of scientific output this could become a very fruitful time given all the outlines, and drafts that I discussed with my team recently.
Still, it is not that easy, and where some discover that they are very productive while working in ‘isolation’, that may not be the case for everyone, and also reshaping the project to allow for working from home as an effective alternative for working at the research group is also not that easy to implement for all of you. If you for example happen to be the PhD candidate carrying out a large human trial at the time of the outbreak in the Netherlands, there are serious issues if this happens to be one of the last things you need to do before completion of your work.
I would like to conclude by saying that I am very impressed by the way that PhD candidates manage to cope with the situation. So thank you all for all the things that you are doing, and please let me and the VLAG office team know if we can do something for you if you run into possible delays. I would be happy to help where needed.
For now, stay safe and stay healthy, and keep doing all these things that you are doing so well!
Prof Karin Schroën
On January 1st 2020, professor Karin Schroën started her term as scientific director of VLAG, following prof. Renger Witkamp who has held this position for the last 4 years. During the 25-year jubilee meeting that was held on 12 December, the new director already lifted part of the veil that currently still hides the vision that she is developing for her term as scientific director. The main theme that she addressed was that she wants to ‘create interaction on many different levels’.
The first level that was addressed was, logically, that of the PhD candidates, who quite often are very focused on their thesis while not really connecting to other fields of research. Prof. Schroën pointed out that fundamental scientists would benefit greatly from interaction with applied scientists, and vice versa. As a matter of fact, many fields of science need to come together to face the challenges that we face as mankind, which can be ultimately realized in Wageningen. Starting this as early as possible is something that prof. Schroën would like to realize through ‘open science forums’, of which she will organize the first one around ‘Nanotechnology and food’, and that later would need to be picked up by the PhD community.
Besides the PhD candidates, also their primary caretakers that are mostly in tenure track were addressed during prof. Schroën’s speech. She indicated that mutual understanding of the stressful situations that occur during a PhD project would help in creating a common ground between candidate and supervisor, and thus make them work together in a more constructive way.
Prof. Schroën holds MSc and PhD degrees of Wageningen (Agricultural) University specializing in food process engineering. She did post-docs at University College London, and the biotechnology group of WU, after which she started as an assistant professor in food process engineering. As soon as it became available, she entered the tenure track and became a personal professor in 2012. Besides this she is a chair holder for one day a week at Twente University, specializing in membrane processes for food. She is also a member of one of the management teams of 4TU, the technology dean organization, the board of Nano4Society, and many more. Through these positions she puts interaction within various fields in science in practice!
Her door is always open; any suggestions that you may have are very welcome.